Cambridge University advertised in the appointments section of last weekend’s Sunday Times for four new external members of the Cambridge University Council. A fuller advertisement appeared in the Cambridge University Reporter.
I thought I would be able to do the job well and I believe it is a worthwhile role with an opportunity to make quite a difference to the University, and the wider world the University impacts on so I applied.
Dear Jonathan Nicholls,
I am writing to express my interest in becoming an external member of the University Council.
The contribution to leading the University which I believe I would be able to make in the role would be based on championing:
- The University as a democratic self-governing institution.
- Taxpayer value.
- The University’s role influencing and leading wider society.
I am a patriot and see Cambridge University as one of the UK’s greatest assets. I also see the University as an institution which is not fulfilling its potential. The principles I have listed would I believe form a solid foundation on which I would base my approach to the scrutiny and leadership role of a member of the University Council.
I would pursue the ideal of the University being run, by its members, as a democratic institution. As many undergraduates, graduates, post-docs, academics and staff as possible ought to be involved in all aspects of governing the institution. Functional students’ unions, whose leaders are members of the University Council and General Board, would in my view be an important and necessary part of this.
Some see external members of Council as a threat to self-governance. While I understand that point of view I believe external members, selected appropriately, could ensure that strong functioning mechanisms for self-governance are established and maintained. Despite the efforts of a number of people I do not think those leading the University at the moment are achieving anything approaching the democratic self-governing ideal.
Colleges, particularly from an external perspective, are an integral part of the University. I would seek to ensure the Council encourages the colleges to cooperate in the interests of the University of which they are a part. I would promote the propagation of key university policies into the colleges in order to provide consistency and minimum standards where necessary. For example I believe the “College Provision for Graduate Students” document should be extended and become a regularly reviewed living document. That model could then be followed to ensure a minimum baseline standard of collegiate approaches a range of subjects such as discipline, dignity at work and admissions. It makes no sense from the point of view of an outsider to state the University has no control over key issues affecting applicants and students in the colleges, at worst it appears evasive. Also on the subject of colleges, the relatively recent significant expansion in numbers of graduate and post-doctoral researchers has not been matched with an increase in college provision, this has created problems which I consider need to be addressed and are largely yet to be tackled.
Ensuring taxpayers get the best possible value for their money is I believe a critical responsibility of the external members of the Council. This includes ensuring the University is responsive and accountable to research councils, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and other conduits for public money. In addition the interests of UK citizens are furthered by ensuring the University is a strong institution working for the people of Britain. The outputs from the University, including well educated individuals provide immense benefits to “UK PLC” as well as contributing to the cultural wealth of the nation and beyond. The value of these outputs are far greater than the value of the revenues which could be raised by an independent, albeit self-financing, academic Disneyland and are the ones on which we should focus.
Arrangements where companies work closely with the University clearly can be of great value to both parties and wider society and need to be encouraged. Such relationships need careful scrutiny and should not be about academics topping up their income or exploiting their positions. There is a need to ensure the opportunities the University offers businesses are openly accessible and that partnerships are forged which are in the interests of the University, country and society.
I passionately believe that those responsible for spending public funds should treat them at least as carefully, if not more carefully than they would their own money. I think a major role of an external member of the University council ought be to defend the UK taxpayer’s interests in the institution. Creating a culture within the University where public money is valued highly would be a worthwhile aim for the Council. In terms of personal accountability and integrity more generally I would like to see all those holding positions of authority and responsibility within the University subscribing to the “Nolan Principles” on standards in public life.
Ensuring the University remains in a strong financial position is clearly in the interests of the UK and is something all members of the University Council need to keep high on their personal agendas. Property and development strategies are intimately linked with this aim.
Openness is not something to be scared of. It will improve governance, and enable “many eyes” to scrutinise the activities of the institution. A culture of “Freedom of Information” (FOI) needs to be established and embraced within Cambridge University. There is rarely any excuse for secrecy within the running of a university. The University Council’s new internal only website is one of many examples of where I consider the current leadership has drawn the line in the wrong place. There is also I believe a problem leading to repeated misleading articles in the press where FOI requests are made to many universities, Cambridge responds, but not on behalf of the colleges even when it is colleges which hold the requested information. Where relevant I believe the University should seek information from the colleges.
On a point related to openness, I would promote the use of open access publications, reducing the flow of public money into publisher’s profits. I would aim for the ideal of ensuring as much as possible of the University’s output is made freely available to all, including those contributing to funding it and those able to make use of it and build upon it. As well as academic publications I would seek to push for more openness with respect to other outputs from the work of the University.
Relationship with Wider Society
The University needs to play an effective role in wider society, from the local relationship between the University and the City of Cambridge and the surrounding region right though to the institution’s global role in the advancement of education, ideas, culture and knowledge. The University, along with other top institutions has an important role leading the UK academic community and influencing national policy.
I have been a resident of Cambridge City since 2001 and have taken an interest in local issues particularly the challenges and questions posed by the recent and proposed growth of the city. I am keen to ensure the University and city work synergistically. I am very concerned with proposals to build homes for university staff only in North-West Cambridge, this will be divisive, damaging to the city, and does not solve the underlying problem of university staff not being able to afford homes on the open market in the city. I would be in favour of the University as a whole participating fully, in a coordinated manner in the decision affecting the City of Cambridge and the surrounding region.
Much is made of improving access to Cambridge University, I believe it is also important at all levels to ensure equality within the University not just in access to it. For example UK students should not get a worse deal or held to a different standard than those paying higher fees. I am a strong supporter of the Cambridge bursary which covers fees for UK students from the poorest families, and contributes in most cases. I believe this should be extended to cover the fees for those from families with average incomes and would certainly fight vehemently against any moves to devalue it.
I am volunteering myself for this role as I have got the time, energy and passion to commit to it and believe I have a lot to offer. I have outlined some of my genuinely and passionately held beliefs and principles which I would bring to the position. I also have first hand knowledge of both many aspects of Cambridge University (research, undergraduate teaching, commercial collaborations, biological safety, colleges and an embedded company) to draw on in addition to my undergraduate experience at Imperial College, which included two years on the Student Union Council. I am an independently minded person with a constructively critical nature and ability to analyse and scrutinise.
I realise they will probably appoint a retired “captain of industry” an ex. General and someone who has run another University but that leaves one post and the application letter is an opportunity to make some points I believe in, in a form which might result in them reaching some influential people; and in any case the odds have got to be better than the lottery.
Being Cambridge, the most likely response to my email expression of interest will probably be for it to be returned, requesting a hard copy be delivered in triplicate signed stamped and sealed. (Update:I got an acknowledgement and that didn’t happen.)